Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Far from anywhere

In the South China Sea, east of the Malaysian mainland, where the dolphins offer escort to boats negotiating these tropical waters, lies Tioman Island a stretch of volcanic outcropping approximately 25 miles long and 7 miles wide.

Not much has changed on this island over the years – clouds loiter around the mountaintops and the dense jungle’s tendrils ends just short of the coast. Developers and American Express have missed this pot and that was the kind of solitude I was seeking.

I had befriended two couples on the ferry over, and as we strolled along we realized we were a large group for the tiny seaside hamlet. Though we sought accommodations together in spite of that fact. Coming upon simple, sand worn cluster of bungalows we hoped for three vacancies -- hot and cranky wanting to put our bags away, and cool off in that alluring surf. There were only two vacancies, and fortunately there was no issue -- I passed, not because of cleanliness, but the front doors faced north not east, and I was determined to see the sun rise from my bed. The owner, a Dutch woman, took momentary offense, and then realized it is probably better to have the “weird one” stay somewhere else -- she offered to get me a room next door. For me, I had to forego only electricity, and a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and homemade bread. My heart sank. I had no concern about doing my nightly writing by kerosene lamp, but the lose of fresh daily bread that was too much to bear. Though I made my bed, so I guess I would have to lie in it.

In spite of my initial rejection, she and I became fast friends, and I was expected for breakfast every morning -- for a small charge of course. Over bread and jam thanking her for the umpteenth time I mentioned I was a chef. I seemed to have said the magic word for the next thing I knew we were planning a dinner for the following evening. The meal would be determined by what the sea gave up to her husband, and what I could find in the garden -- really the start of the jungle behind the house.

I managed to gather unripe papayas, onion, coconuts, chilies, and cilantro. I decided to make a curried papaya soup with coconut based upon what I found out back. Seated on the floor we scrapped and scrapped the coconut flesh against a serrated blade, and then took the shaved coconut to soak in water. After about a half hour we wrapped the drenched coconut in a towel, and rung out the freshly made coconut milk. It was delicious, but canned is far easier. Using the coconut milk as my stock base I made a sublime soup. Her husband brought more fish then I expected. We built a fire in a pit in the sand, and wrapped the fish in banana leaves, and left them to cook. Of course, no meal is complete without a serving of rice.

When we sat down to dinner, one American, two Englishman, 5 Dutch, and 3 Malaysians. To my amusement I discovered that the Malays do not eat soup as we do in the west. It was immediately poured over their rice to accompany the fish. Trying not to be insulted, I mused at the cultural difference savored this wonderful meal and gathering of new friends.

Curried Papaya and Coconut Soup - yields 4 to 6 servings
1 teaspoon Sesame oil
1 medium onion - peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves - crushed
1 to 2 small red chilies - seeds remove if you want to lower the heat
1-tablespoon curry powder
1 large papaya - unripe, peeled and diced (seeds discarded)
I can coconut milk
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock 1/2 bunch cilantro leaves - roughly chopped
1 lime – juiced (approx. 1/3 cup)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a stock pot heat the scant amount of oil, and add the onions. Sauté the onions till translucent, and then add the garlic, curry and chilies. Sauté for a few minutes longer. Add the diced papaya. Pour in the stock and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, and immediately reduce to a simmer. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Blend the soup in a food processor till smooth and creamy. Return to the stock pot, and simmer another 15 minutes. Season with the limejuice, salt and pepper. Add the cilantro leaves just prior to serving.

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